From birth, most parents teach their children to be kind and respectful to others. But when we talk about respect, we are immersing ourselves in a very complex and relative term. That’s because acts that represent respect for me, may not represent respect to others, varying with the way they were brought up. If this concept varies between families, how much more among the cultures of the world.
In fact, the concept of respect varies widely from country to country. The differences are huge, and not only between Western and Eastern cultures. This is why traveling somewhere new knowing just the basics about that place can be risky. Studying a little about the culture or even talking to someone who has lived or visited that country will make for a much more pleasant experience.
In researching for this article, I decided to speak with three friends who helped me put together a picture of what respect means in the culture where they live or the culture of their heritage. Let me introduce them!
Danielly—whose parents came to Brazil from Japan when her mother was still pregnant with her and whose extended family is still in Japan.
Hajar—a Moroccan doctor that I met on a bus in Europe, and we have been in touch ever since!
Larissa—our TGW founder, who told me more about Canada where she has lived for 15 years.
With the help of these friends, let’s explore the way respect is understood—specifically as it applies to society, family, and religion—in four regions of the world, specifically: Brazil, Canada, Japan, and Morocco.
Respect in Interpersonal Relationships
Let’s start with Brazil. The most common way Brazilians show respect is through affection and warm kindness. I say this because it’s very common for Brazilians to greet each other with hugs and kisses on the cheek, even people we just been introduced to. But when it comes to the workplace, the way in which respect is shown is through formal and elaborate vocabulary, marked by little affection and more impersonality, respecting hierarchy. When addressing the elderly, it’s considered a sign of respect to refer to them as “Senhor/Senhora” (Sir/Ma’am), a practice often taught to children as the manner to address anyone older than them.
In most of North America, affection doesn’t mark interpersonal relationships. In Canada, respect takes a more egalitarian approach. There, people, in general, believe that everyone ought to be treated the same, regardless of religion, race, sexual orientation, or biological sex. The stereotype that Canadians are extremely respectful and kind, mostly, rings true.
In Japan, respect is also rarely shown through affection. On the contrary, the way in which the Japanese show respect is through formalities and traditions that follow a hierarchy defined by age. The elderly must be obeyed and treated with greater respect. This is justified due to the extreme responsibility that falls on those who are older since they must teach and set an example for the young. This respect is exercised both within the family and with strangers, demonstrated with formalities and rituals that show reverence. A bow is considered a sign of respect and courtesy.¹
In Morocco, families are very tight, and respect for the opinions of parents is shown by faithful obedience. There is respect on both sides, as parents advise and orient their children on the choice of a spouse, but respect that the son or daughter has the final say. The use of a burqa or hijab is also a choice for every woman, based on her faith, as a sign of respect for Allah.
Respect for the authorities
Respect for authorities has become somewhat controversial in Brazil. Due to situations of corruption and police brutality, Brazilians have become suspicious of positions of power. Unfortunately, this bitterness towards authority has pervaded other areas of society like at school, where teachers have to treat students with a lot of respect, as equals.
In Asian cultures, this is quite different. In Japan, the authorities are treated with the utmost respect, in recognition of the responsibility attached to being in a commanding position. This is why one of the most respected professions in Japan is that of a teacher. Teachers have an immense responsibility to educate future citizens. If a student is caught doing something wrong, even outside the classroom, their teacher is often alerted even before their parents! This responsibility is recognized and greatly esteemed by society. First thing in the morning, students come into class and bow a greeting to their teacher.²
In Morocco, respect for authorities is quite noticeable. But what differentiates this situation from others is that this respect is based on the fear of punishment. That’s because the penalties for breaking the law are very severe, often going against human rights. It’s very common to see authorities making use of defense weapons, such as batons, to enforce respect and obedience to the rules.
In Canada, authority and laws in place are generally very respected. But obedience is conditional on the principle that governs its society: respect and tolerance as long as no one is interfering in anyone else’s freedom.
Respect and religion
When it comes to religion, most of the places we are familiar with have a mixture of religions that coexist. That’s true for countries like Brazil, Canada, and Japan. In these countries, while one religion may be more predominant than others, religion doesn’t necessarily play a part in the country’s laws and societal customs. So when I first traveled to a country where religion affects a big part of its people’s daily lives, it was a cultural shock. In Morocco, due to religion commanding various parts of daily life, there are megaphones installed around the square that, during prayer times, emit a prayer song, calling on merchants to close their stalls for a moment, to kneel and pray towards the Mecca. At that moment the whole city stops.
However, this isn’t mandatory. Talking with Hajar, she explained that Moroccans and Islamists believe that everyone has a free right to choose their religion as they respect all beliefs. There isn’t anything in the Islamic religion that considers their religion better than others, or that doesn’t defend the freedom of all to make their individual choices. The negative concepts we have about the Islamic religion come from a small minority that, unfortunately, distort their beliefs to extremes in order to justify violent acts.
Travel and Learn
The truth is that what we believe about certain cultures can often be influenced by prejudices stemming from a lack of knowledge. That’s why I consider traveling to be so important. The whole process of being in another country, noticing different cultures, interacting with that society, and learning to respect them, is something that is only possible through the complete experience of travel. But as we already said at the beginning, it isn’t enough to just choose a destination and go. It’s important to learn at least a little about where you’re going so that you can be a conscious tourist. (As soon as it’s safe to do so) let’s TRAVEL MORE but TRAVEL CONSCIOUSLY.
References and where you can read more:
¹ EDiplomat – Japan Cultural Etiquette – www.ediplomat.com/np/cultural_etiquette/ce_jp.htm
² CBS News – Respect for Japanese Teachers – www.cbsnews.com/news/respect-for-japanese-teachers-means-top-results/